The Brooklyn Shore

nationsplayground

Aerial view of the Brooklyn shore. From the Edward B. Watson photographs and prints collection (ARC.213); Object ID # V1976.2.351

Once described as the “nation’s playground,”  (well, at least in the image above) the Brooklyn shore used to be the hot place to holiday. Except, back then, it was less Snooki, and more on par with a holiday Monsieur Hulot would take. As the BHS archives and photograph collection survey project enters its second summer, we’ve uncovered much in our collections, as well as uncovered so much Brooklyn history. The photograph collection tells volumes about Brooklyn. For example, beginning in the 1820s, but largely from the 1880s to the 1930s, people vacationed in Brooklyn–and not just tourists. Locals also took their summer holidays in Brooklyn, where they flocked en masse to the beaches of Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Bath Beach, and Manhattan Beach, among others. In (Brooklyn native!) Phillip Lopate’s excellent anthology of writings about New York, Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, writer and journalist Theodore Dreiser describes the lure of a summer holiday, circa 1890, spent at the Manhattan Beach.

Below are bits of the first two pages of “A Vanished Seaside Resort” (originally published in 1923 in Dreiser’s The Color of a Great City:

At Broadway and Twenty-third Street, where later, on this and some other ground, the once famed Flatiron Building was placed, there stood at one time a smaller building, not more than six stories high, the northward looking blank wall of which was completely covered with a huge electric sign which read:

SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES

THE GREAT HOTELS

PAIN’S FIREWORKS

SOUSA’S BAND

SEIDL’S GREAT ORCHESTRA

THE RACES

NOW–MANHATTAN BEACH–NOW

…When Sunday came we made our way, via horse-cars first to the East Thirty-fourth Street ferry and then by ferry and train, eventually reaching the beach by noon.

…Indeed, Thirty-fourth Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows. The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation, and all such ferries as led to Manhattan Beach of summer week-ends for years afterward, or until the automobile arrived, were similarly crowded.

…The long, hot, red trains trains leaving Long Island City threaded a devious way past many pretty Long Island villages, until at last, leaving possible home sites behind, the road took to the great meadows on trestles, and transversing miles of bending marsh grass astir with wind, and crossing a half hundred winding and mucky lagoons where lay water as agate in green frames and where were white cranes, their long legs looking like reeds, standing in the water or the grass, and the occasional boat of a fisherman hugging some mucky bank, it arrived finally at the white sands of the sea and this great scene…It was romance, poetry, fairyland.

Here are some of the many images we have of the hotels that were located along the Brooklyn shore. Starting with, of course, the Manhattan Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel that stood side-by-side on Manhattan Beach, competing for top honors as to which was the best seaside resort. If you go on to read the rest of what Dreiser wrote about his first journey to Manhattan Beach, you’ll find out who went to which resort…and why.

mbandorientalhotels

A panoramic view of Manhattan Beach showing the Marine Railway Station, the Manhattan Beach Hotel, Bathing Pavilion, Restaurant, and the Oriental Hotel. From the Edward B. Watson photographs and prints collection (ARC.213); Object ID # V1976.2.291

manbeach3

Manhattan Beach Hotel, Manhattan Beach. Built by financier Austin Corbin, it opened on July 18, 1877, an addition was added in 1878, and another addition in 1879. From the Eugene L. Armbruster photograph and scrapbook collection; Object ID # V1974.1.985.

orientalhotel

Oriental Hotel, Manhattan Beach. Built in 1876, the Oriental was one of the earliest of the grand hotels to be built on this part of the Brooklyn shore. From the Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (ARC.201); Object ID # V1972.1.916

Brighton Beach, located just west of Manhattan Beach was (and still is) also a summer holiday destination. As described in The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn by Kenneth Jackson and John Manbeck, “Brighton Beach was designed with families in mind. Less rowdy than its sister Coney Island to the west, and not as exclusive as its sibling Manhattan Beach to the East, Brighton Beach is the perfect site for a relaxed summer day at the shore.”

hotelbrighton2

Hotel Brighton (later renamed the Brighton Beach Hotel), Brighton Beach. The hotel opened on July1, 1878. In 1888, the hotel was moved 500 feet further inland. From the From the Eugene L. Armbruster photograph and scrapbook collection; Object ID # V1974.1.956.

As for Coney Island, it was (and is) a summer destination. As the dramatic difference in the three hotels will testify, Coney Island had something for every taste.

halfmoon3

Half Moon Hotel, Coney Island. The hotel, named after Henry Hudson's ship, had 300 rooms, a roof garden, grill, restaurant, and an indoor swimming pool. From the Edward B. Watson photographs and prints collection (ARC.213); Object ID # V1976.2.240

elephanthotel

Elephant Hotel, Coney Island. Built in 1882, this hotel had seven stories, an observatory on top, and a cigar store in one leg. At one point it was purportedly a brothel. It burned down in 1896. From the Eugene L. Armbruster photograph and scrapbook collection; Object ID # V1972.2.25

whitneyhotel

The Whitney Hotel, Coney Island. This hotel had 100 rooms, a restaurant, 100 private lockers for rent, a bathing beach, and bathing suits for rent. From the Postcard Collection (V1973.004); Object ID # V1973.4.786

Since we’ve started surveying the BHS Photography Collection, I’ve seen so many images of the Brooklyn that was. When reading Dreiser’s reminiscence describing his journey from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, I was able to conjure up the scenes he described from actual photographs in our collections. Though the grand hotels that lined the Brooklyn shore have all but vanished today, we luckily have many images of them that will (at least) preserve their place in history. Oh, if only the preservation movement had been around then…

About Patricia Glowinski

Trained as both a librarian and archivist (MLIS from Pratt Institute), I've had the pleasure of working at some great NYC institutions. When not working on the CLIR survey project, you'll find me hoofing it around the city, looking above store windows, gazing at the city I love.
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